Flight to fame
Milkha Singh, an orphan who was displaced during India’s Partition, rose to become one of the greatest athletes India has ever seen. After fading into the shadows, the Flying Sikh is now back in the limelight after his biopic hit the big screen, says Arch
H is voice was weak but his words were insistent: “Run, Milkha, run.” Lying in a pool of blood, waiting for death, Sampuran Singh pleaded with his shocked 12-year-old son to flee. “If you stay, they will get you,’’ he stammered.
Milkha had just returned home from school in Lyallpur, now in western Pakistan, to find that most of his family of impoverished farmers had been mercilessly massacred in the riots that were continuing in India and Pakistan after the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. Too young to understand why the toxic typhoon of hatred was sweeping the Subcontinent, Milkha was bewildered to find that two of his sisters, a brother and his mother had been killed. Not sure whether to obey his dying father’s last words to flee, or to stay and help him, Milkha, confused, bewildered and overwhelmed, looked around for help. But all he could see was a mob baying for blood racing towards his home. Milkha gave one last teary-eyed look at his dying father then began running.
“I really don’t know how many kilometres I must have run that day,’’ recalls the now septuagenarian and an icon of Indian athletics. Through forests and past streams, Milkha kept running
and hours later, stumbled on to a railway station where a train, packed with fleeing refugees from Pakistan, was preparing to chug out. The young boy sneaked into the women’s compartment and hid under a pile of bodies that had been dumped in it.
“I thought I would be safe there,’’ he says, talking exclusively to Friday. Exhausted from weeping for the loss of his loved ones, stunned by the magnitude of destruction around him and scared for his own life, Milkha fell asleep on the train that took him to Delhi in India.
“To this day, I find it difficult to believe that I survived the horrors of Partition. I reached Delhi homeless, penniless and with no one to call my own,” says Milkha, 78, who after basking in the limelight decades ago as a star athlete is now back making headlines thanks to his biopic, which has captured India’s imagination. Starring acclaimed actor director Farhan Akhtar, the film BhaagMilkha bhaag (Run, Milkha run) is an eloquent portrayal of young Milkha’s rise from an orphan to become one of India’s best known sportspersons who missed an Olympic medal by a whisker at the 1960 Rome Games. It also lays bare the conflicts he had with his inner demons and how he slayed all of them to stand tall in sport. The film, which earned commercial and critical acclaim, was recently adjudged one of the five best Bollywood movies of 2013 by critics and the film fraternity. “My phone has not stopped ringing since the film was released,’’ he says. “I am getting hundreds of congratulatory calls from all over the world.”
Those calls included one from American sprinter Carl Lewis. “Yes, Carl Lewis called me,’’ says Milkha, from his modest house in the north Indian city of Chandigarh.
“He told me that a friend had acted as interpreter translating the dialogue in the Hindi movie for him. I was overwhelmed to get Carl’s call.’’
Although it garnered critical and commercial success, the movie narrowly
missed being selected as India’s entry for the Oscars. “But that hardly matters,’’ says its star Farhan Akhtar. Audiences loved it and got an insight into one of the heroes of sport, he says – a success story that’s all the more incredible given Milkha’s traumatic past.
The early days
After stumbling off the train in Delhi, Milkha lived in a refugee camp set up by the government for those displaced by the Partition.
There, he met a relative who suggested that Milkha join the army so he would be able to make a life of his own. Signing up for the Indian Army at the age of 16, he soon found athletics – or rather athletics found him.
“It was during the compulsory cross-country run for new recruits, in which I came sixth, that my seniors recognised my potential as an athlete and decided to train me along with the other top runners for national and international level competitions,” he says.
‘The clear superiority of others shocked me but at the same time it inspired me. I knew I had to improve my technique’
Milkha soon found joy in running, not only because the strenuous routine helped heal his emotional scars, but because it reminded him of his time in his village.
“I was a natural runner. My school was about 10km from home and every day my friends and I would race to school. I used to run barefoot because my family was too poor to afford shoes for me. In the peak of summer when the temperature would touch 50°C, we would run for a while, stop to cool our feet on a patch of grass before sprinting off again.”
It was the same routine on the way back from school. “Running 20km a day was no mean feat but it built up my stamina,’’ he says. However, he did not have the chance to pursue running as a sport as the school lacked a support system to train athletes.
Once in the Indian Army, Milkha began to excel in athletics and soon medals and trophies for 200m as well as 400m races began to line his shelves. He showed his prowess for the first time at the Services Athletic Meet 1955 where he finished second in the 200m and 400m. But it was his win at the 400m event at the 1956 National Games in Patiala that put the spotlight on him and he set his sights on the biggest sporting event of all – the Olympics.
“I – and India – had high hopes when I began preparing for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne,’’ says Milkha. But his hopes were dashed when he was eliminated in the first round. “The clear superiority of the others shocked me but at the same time it inspired me. I knew I had to improve my technique.’’
Determined to bounce back, Milkha asked Charles Jenkins, an American runner who went on to win two gold medals that year, if he could share his training methods with him. Charles drew up a detailed chart for Milkha, giving tips on diet and exercise that Milkha says changed his life. “Charles was the one who inspired me after which I just trained relentlessly,’’ he says. “I used to sweat buckets and continue.’’
There were several occasions when Milkha passed out on the track from exhaustion and
the strain of practising for hours under the sun, running up mountains, racing against speeding trains. “I remember doctors telling me that I was putting my life in danger because of my strenuous practice sessions,’’ he says. “But I did not stop. I would tell myself that I would never be an also-ran. I vowed to do whatever it took to be the best in the world.’’
The year 1958 belonged to Milkha. In his first appearance at an Asian Games event – the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo – he won golds at 200m and 400m. The same year he got independent India’s first gold medal in an athletic event at a Commonwealth Games when he won the 400m race in Cardiff, Wales. He also received a Padmashri award, the fourth-highest civilian award in India.
The Tokyo Asian Games, however, remains special to Milkha because, “It was here that I met Pakistani sprinter Abdul Khaliq.’’
The two had won individual medals – Abdul for the 100m and Milkha for the 400m. But for the first time the two stars would compete against each other for the 200m gold – a race that would go into history books for its heartstopping finale. “The race began in earnest but just at the finish line, I pulled a muscle in my left leg. I was in pain and my left shoulder lurched forward. It was a photo finish, but because I had lurched forward, I won the race. Abdul Khaliq came second,’’ he says.
Pakistan took note of Milkha – as the man who beat their own star Abdul.
In 1960, when India was preparing to send a team to the Rome Olympics, the selectors did not have to look far. Milkha was the first choice and was billed as India’s first individual medal hopeful. “I had trained hard and my performance at international meets had filled me with confidence to take on the world.’’
Dejected by defeat
Milkha’s eyes glaze over when he remembers the finals for the historic 400m race in Rome, Italy. “Initially, I was pretty much in control of my emotions even when I entered the stadium. But the moment I saw my rivals, tension mounted in me.
“I was on lane five with South African Malcolm Spence on my left and German Manfred Kinder on my right,” he recalls. “The moment the starting pistol shot was fired, I took off. I was going strong for about 250m and leading the field. But then, thinking I would not be able to sustain the pace until the end, I decided to save my energy for the final burst and slowed down a bit. At that point I guess I even looked back.’’
It was that fraction of a second that would decide Milkha’s fate. “In that microsecond, they all caught up with me – Spence, Kaufmann and Davis. Before I realised it, it was all over.”
Milkha came fourth, missing a bronze by a millisecond and what would have been independent India’s first individual Olympic medal in athletics. “That fraction of a second cost me a spot on the victory stand,’’ he says. “After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory. I kept crying for days. The one medal I had yearned for throughout my career had slipped through my fingers because of one small error of judgement. I had no interest left in anything. I felt after years of dominating the sport the decline had set in,” says Milkha.
Dejected by defeat, he decided to give up sport forever. “Nothing and nobody could change my mind. I was so frustrated,’’ he says.
The same year, 1960, General Ayub Khan, the then military head of Pakistan, invited Milkha to run once again against Abdul Khaliq. “But I declined,’’ he says. However, his coaches Ranbir Singh and JS Saini were reluctant to let their star athlete waste away. They kept encouraging him and persuading him to return to the field. Finally Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s then Prime Minister, suggested he should get back into the sport and take up Ayub Khan’s offer.
“I remember meeting Pandit Nehru at his residence in Delhi,” recalls Milkha. “I was not keen to go, particularly because of the sad experiences I had endured [in Pakistan]. But he insisted, saying that he believed such sporting meets were the only way to forget the past and forge a brand new future.”
So the star runner set off to Pakistan to race against Abdul.
More than 7,000 people had gathered to watch the race at the stadium in Lahore. General Ayub Khan was also there. The race started with Abdul in the lead but with just 50m to the finish line, Milkha overtook him to breast the tape.
‘Nehru believed that sporting meets were the only way to forget the past and forge a brand new future’
“The entire stadium was silent,’’ remembers Milkha. “And I felt elated as I was back on the victory stand after a long time.’’
When the time came to award the medals, General Ayub bent and whispered in Milkha’s ear, “You didn’t run today, you flew.’’ Thus the moniker Flying Sikh – which Milkha is better known as – was born.
Two years later, Milkha won two medals at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta – one for his individual performance in the quarter mile race and the other as a part of 4x400m relay.
The same year he married the love of his life and captain of India’s volleyball team, Nirmal Kaur. The two had been courting for seven years but had decided to put their relationship
on the back burner just so that they could focus on their sporting careers.
But none of these victories, recognitions and personal milestones could heal the pain of that Olympic loss.
“My mistake at Rome will rankle in my heart until my last breath,” he says. “I still feel the pain. I had trained for 12 months, and when you lose after putting in so much effort, it causes irreparable damage. I can never forget that moment. Everyone thought I would win gold, but I could not even bring home bronze.”
Inspirational not sensational
In an attempt to slay the demons of his tumultuous past and find closure, Milkha wrote his first autobiography Flying Sikh Milkha
Singh. Released in 1977, the book was in his mother tongue, Punjabi, and it generated a lot of interest not only among the audience but among the film-makers as well.
“Many of them offered me a lot of money for the copyright of the book but I didn’t sell it,” Milkha says. “I wanted to work with a filmmaker who would make an inspiring film, not one that was merely sensational.
“So when my son Jeev Milkha Singh [a celebrated golfer] suggested Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s name, I agreed as he was known for his honest cinema.”
The Flying Sikh, however, had a condition – 10 per cent of the film’s earnings would go to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, an organisation that provides medical care to retired sports persons who can’t afford it.
The film took four years to come together, years in which Farhan Akhtar observed Milkha’s mannerisms on and off the field and trained relentlessly to look like an international athlete. In those years Milkha, along with his daughter Sonia Sanwalka, wrote another autobiography The Race ofMy Life. This book was in English and it was launched just after the release of the film.
BhaagMilkha Bhaag, which was released in July 2013, went on to gross more than Rs1 billion (about Dh60 million) at the box office. “When I saw the film, I cried. I congratulated Farhan Akhtar, who was sitting next to me, and told him, ‘Beta, you are a duplicate copy of Milkha Singh.’”
Although in his seventies, Milkha still maintains his exercise routine. He jogs at least 3km three times a week, regularly works out in a gym and enjoys playing a game of golf and shooting the breeze with friends.
“I avoid old men,” he says. “They are always complaining about life and its problems. I would rather spend my time with young people talking about the good things in life.”
So, is he happy with the way his life has panned out?
“I won several medals for India although I missed an Olympic one. I am leading a healthy life now. God has been very kind to me. What more can I ask for?” he says.
Milkha in action in France in 1960. Farhan Akhtar, right, portrays him on the big screen
Milkha is happy with the movie of his life and hopes it is inspirational
Farhan Akhtar trained hard to play Milkha in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Milkha, centre, with film-maker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, left, and actor Farhan Akhtar